Monday, 8 November 2010
Down at the old Bullen Bush: Sloe Gin
This is a bullen bush. You have only a few days left to find one - usually on the edge of a park or wasteland - and harvest the berries. They've had all the sun they are going to get and now have the maximum sweetness a sloe achieves, which isn't very much. The frosts should have encouraged the interior cells to burst, which is quicker than mucking about with a fork. When the berries are perfectly ripe they will slide off the branch between the wicked thorns, which saves having to pick out their little stalks. As the wind has combed the leaves off the bushes now it is easier to see where the knife-thorns are.
Take care when gathering the them; blackthorn is notorious for spikes which easily turn septic. It is not a suitable job for children. Always promise the bush that you'll plant a few of its cherries in a new hedge and wash hands very carefully when you get back. I'm surprised it isn't more widely used as a security plant as it is graceful and doesn't go dropping dead every five minutes. When the leaves are off it is easy to see its Gothic architecture and it would be a simple matter to prune it in to shape. The dry twigs are said to burn with a bright smokeless fire.
Wash the berries, discard any remaining stalks or leaves, and either freeze them in 8-ounce portions or get ready with a lotta bottles. 8oz is approximately the volume of 40cl. It is the interstices between the berries which determines the amount of sugar you can cram in. This is chosen purely because the bottles I'm using happen to be 70cl.
For the next trick you will require two 70cl gin bottles; one full, one empty, and a calibrated jug as this recipe works by volume. As you are going to add berries and sugar the most basic safe supermarket spirit is suitable. A funnel will help enormously with getting the sugar in to the bottles; use a paper cone if someone has run off with yours.
Having either set about the berries with a fork or open-frozen them to burst the cells, post 40cl or 8oz of berries in to the empty bottle, pour over 35cl of gin and top up with sugar, then replace the caps carefully to be quite sure they don't dribble. Visit the bottles every few days to give them a shake and help the sugar dissolve. They'll be ready for the New Year party or can be laid down for a year.
As I had a pair of 75cl jars I made a thicker syrup and buried a cinnamon stick in. This will be suitable as base for other recipes where a fruity spiced syrup is required e.g. punches, pudding sauces, or to sweeten oil and vinegar dressings. The proportions here are 40cl berries, 35cl gin, one cinnamon stick and a great deal of sugar to fill up the space. Some people like other flavourings such as cloves.
The berries should steep until the New Year, but they can be tested at Christmas. It is best used, in my opinion, as a spritzer base as the berries and the sugar are a sure recipe for a terrible headache if drunk to excess. Sloe gin can be laid down for a year and many authorities think it should be, while others think the best thing to do is ignore the sloes and use damsons or make blackberry vodka instead. Maximum keeping time is 3 years.
A shade more than half the volume of the bottle should be filled with berries, then covered by a more precise half-bottle of gin. The amount of sugar is determined by the displaced space between the berries and is roughly one-third of the total volume.
For anyone who has not handled the berries before: do not attempt to eat them as they have a gravelly stone. No matter what you might have heard they are not suitable for eating. Yes, I have done the experiments. If the gin comes out very thick, sieve it through a tea-strainer. If it comes out fairly thin, consider running it through a coffee filter paper to clarify it. The sugar may look like a lot, but it is the sugar which draws out the sloe flavouring in to the gin.
This preparation uses very little time beyond the collecting of the berries, and that counts as exercise. It produces sloe gin at roughly two-thirds the cost of a commerical bottle.